Whether it is the Nerdy Book Club, whose book lists and reviews are essential resources for the busy teacher to keep up with the newest books; Penny Kittle’s Book Love Foundation, which funds class libraries across the country (you should seriously consider this if you want to expand your library); or Donalyn Miller, The Book Whisperer herself, choice reading is having a long overdue moment in the spotlight.
This is a wonderful development, as there is a large body a research that shows that the single most important factor in reading achievement is reading volume, and nothing promotes volume like choice reading.
It should also be mentioned since this is a blog focused on writing instruction, that the benefits of choice reading don’t stop with reading skills either. Whether it is William Faulkner (see below), Stephen King, or researchers at the University of Hong Kong, the evidence from practitioners and researchers alike makes a fairly overwhelming case that robust reading is one of the most important (or even the most important) prerequisites for writers to fully develop their writing voices.
I’ve seen this magic of student choice reading firsthand; it is why every single one of my classes–composition or literature–reads choice books for 30 minutes in each 95 minute block. It is also why a few years ago I started to experiment with choice writing as well. The concept behind it was simple: If choice reading increases reading and writing skills, helps to turn reluctant readers into readers for life, and reframes what it means to read in a classroom, could choice writing do the same for the written word?
Of course, this was not an entirely new idea. Donald Graves, Nancy Atwell, and Peter Elbow all talk about choice writing, Ralph Fletcher’s newest book Joy Write has a whole chapter called “Feral Writing” that looks at the power of writing let off the leash, and having choice in writing is a core tenet of the workshop model, but even still, the land of choice writing–both in terms of practice and research–is still largely unexplored, especially at the secondary and post-secondary level.
Today I want to share the lessons I’ve learned from my early ventures into choice writing, how it has transformed my classroom, and my hope for where to take this concept in the future, as I think few pedagogical tools have as much promise.
As I said above, while an ever-growing body of research continues to refine our understanding of the value of choice reading, studies on choice writing are nearly non-existent. In the absence of such studies, our case needs to be built off of what we do know, including the following:
- Students need to write a lot to grow as writers.
- Student motivation is built on things like autonomy, perceived value, and belief they can do it.
- Students tend to develop their skills best in the context of low-stakes writing.
- Writing is scary and negative for many students.
If framed right, choice writing could potentially address all of these criteria. It’s stakes are inherently lower, and it tends to be less scary and more valuable because students can gravitate towards topics, genres, and styles that are both meaningful and comfortable to them. Also, the opportunity to choose-their-own-adventures will hopefully let students pursue paths they will want to continue doing outside of the confines of the school day, extending the learning in the same way that choice reading so often does.
Most teachers do choice writing of some sort already. Some of the most common include:
- Free-writes that target certain skills or ideas
- Choice of topic within a genre.
These are all great ways to introduce choice into writing–I use them all, and they can have a lot of the same positive effects listed above–but I have also begun to use true and complete choice writing, the kind that I have when I sit down at a keyboard after the school day is done. This is trickier to incorporate into a classroom, but in the right situations it can take student engagement and comfort to a whole new level.
There are a few moments where I use true choice writing. They are…
- When students are working on mechanics and grammar. Students understand grammar best as a tool to improve writing in the context of their own writing. This is why my grammar units have no worksheets; instead students write anything they want in any genre they want, and then use our grammatical tools to take those pieces to the next level.
- When my students are working on their goals. Students in my class set growth goals that we regularly return to throughout the semester. At times, I will have them write short pieces focused on working on those goals. The topic and genre of these pieces are completely up to them. If a student’s goal is to improve word choice and he/she/they wants to write poetry to practice it, I’m fine with that. If the student’s goal is staying organized and he/she/they wants to write an op-ed, I’m fine with that. The idea here is for them to think a bit deeper about their goals and how to achieve them and to do this in a medium that is the most comfortable for them.
- This year I am going to have the final for my Composition class be a Genius Hour piece where students work every Friday in the fourth quarter on some piece of writing that they are inspired to do. This could be a narrative, argument, piece of creative non-fiction, review, etc. They will then have the last two weeks of the semester to polish something from that time and turn it into a final paper that showcases all of the techniques, skills, and ideas we’ve covered over the course of the semester. If my central goal in Composition is for students to grow and identify as writers, I can’t think of a more fitting final.
The how is the trickiest part of choice writing because for most students it is intensely not natural. There will be many in your class who have likely never written a piece whose parameters weren’t closely laid out by the teacher. The first time I tell my students that a piece is entirely up to them, I often get bewildered looks like I’ve just asked them to compose an essay in Ancient Greek.
So when it comes to my choice writing, I make sure to add the following structure and instruction:
- Before we ever put pen to paper, we have a discussion about the value of writing solely for one’s self. While some choice reading experts argue that we shouldn’t talk about the value of reading and instead just have students do it, choice writing is so unusual and unorthodox in many schools that I’ve found many students engage more when they have solid reasons before embarking. I find that this discussion of reasons for choice writing tends to work best when it is truly student-led though, so I just pose the question of why millions or even billions of people write regularly when it’s not assigned and then let them go crazy. I am always struck in this conversation about how their collection of answers far surpasses any set of answers I could have given to them.
- I next model students’ potential options because many students won’t have any idea about where to start without models. In terms of models I’m using for my Genius Hour, I have shown excerpts from David Sedaris’ “Santaland Diaries” and “Let it Snow” to talk about the value of telling stories from our past; parts of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s incredible story “The Arrangements” to talk about how many use fiction to explore non-fiction (a warning, this is not a very friendly story to Trump but it is amazing; I made sure to cut it so that it wasn’t too political), Frannie Choi’s poetic exploration of anxiety “The Mantis Shrimp Speaks” and Nate Marshall’s poetic examination of his move from Chicago to Ann Arbor “in the land where whitefolks jog” to talk about how poetry can be a way to process one’s self; some favorite excerpts of Anne Frank’s diary to talk about reflective writing; and a few Op-Eds. In future weeks I plan to toss out some fan-fiction, research-focused writing, blogs, and maybe add an album or movie review.
- I then make sure to give it time that I don’t bump. I’ve found that in the same way that regularly bumping choice reading signals to the students that it is unimportant compared to everything else, the same is true for choice writing.
- Finally, I also regularly seed choice writing extensions with possible suggestions for places to extend their writing beyond the school criteria. I will point out short fiction contests, encourage them to do National Novel Writing Month, show them student blogs, and encourage them to write to explore their feelings.
I often half-joke with my students that I don’t grade them on their choice reading time because it is more important than grades. While I tend to say this with a wry smile, it is exactly what I believe. We need to build readers for life, not just for class and a grade.
The same thing is true for writing though. While reading can transport us to new worlds, grow our empathy, and inspire new thinking, writing has the ability to help us make sense of our world, allow us to add our own voices to the web of human history, and clarify one’s own thinking and feelings. And just like no tool is better for creating lifetime readers than choice reading, I have come to find that no tool is better for creating lifetime writers than choice writing!
Yours in Teaching,
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Teachers are busy–too busy–so we need to share with each other. That is why this blog exists. I’ve studied and written about writing instruction for over ten years and would love to share what I’ve found with you. Join my mailing list now and I will send you a thoughtful post about teaching writing each week. As a thank you, you will also receive a copy of my free ebook A Game of Inches: Making the most of your feedback to student writing and deals on my upcoming book from Corwin Literacy on best practices in writing instruction.
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